14. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1
Saigon, January 17, 1968, 1115Z.
16225. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my thirty-fifth weekly message:
- I indicated in my last weekly message2 that I would be sending my assessment of problems and prospects for 1968 in my next message. I have now deferred this for a week in order to assure that a more careful and comprehensive analysis can be prepared. The following report therefore covers normal developments of the past ten days.
- Viet-Nam is now entering its annual pre-Tet lull when most activities are either slowed or halted altogether in favor of preparations for [Page 34] the great annual Tet holiday, which is a celebration which resembles our Christmas, New Years, and Thanksgiving all rolled into one.
- Indeed approaching Tet season is the official explanation of the reason given for calling a halt to the conflict between the government and the CVT labor union which arose because of the demands of the employees of the former French owned power company for pay increases. The strike had already spread to other segments of the work force. Although there were other compelling reasons for calling a halt to the conflict between the government and the CVT labor union, following a meeting of labor leaders and government officials which lasted until 3 in the morning, the CVT yesterday issued a communiqué stopping all strikes in the interest of not inconveniencing the people before the Tet holiday.
- If the Tet spirit helped to smooth over the clash between the CVT and the government, it has not yet allayed the widespread concern about the possibility that the U.S. will make a deal with Hanoi or the NLF which will ultimately result in a Communist takeover of South Viet-Nam. The Trinh statement on negotiations set off a wave of speculation that continues to touch all facets of Vietnamese political life. The Senate discussed the question of the GVN position with regard to the NLF on January 3, and most speakers stressed their belief that coalition government is a Communist tactic aimed at accomplishing by political means what they have failed to do by military action. The chairman of the Senate as well as a number of other Senators and lower house Deputies have expressed their deep concern to us privately. Some military leaders have gone so far as to talk privately of a coup if a coalition government seems imminent. Even militant Buddhist leaders and “Struggle” elements have expressed such fears and counseled against any dealings with the NLF which will give the Front any status other than that of Hanoi’s instrument. These fears have been echoed and agitated by the press. For six weeks editorial comment has been dominated by such things as the possibility of U.S. recognition of the NLF and the bogey of coalition government.
- President Thieu has responded to these anxieties by a series of statements designed to show that he is determined to oppose and prevent any policy moves from any quarter which will result in a Communist takeover here. On January 5 he told journalists that he will crush all peace moves which favor the formation of coalition government. He made several similar statements in the following days, and on January 15 he made a major speech in which he set out the government position on the peace issue. He warned against a bombing pause without any reciprocal action by the Communists, and he said that the Communists are trying to get the allies to negotiate with the NLF in order to “obtain acceptance of a ‘coalition government’ in which the [Page 35] Communist elements, as Trojan horses, will gradually take over the whole of South Viet-Nam.”
- I think that Thieu’s remarks reflect his own general thinking, though he is personally more flexible than the uncompromising tone of his speech might seem to indicate. For example, he repeated to me recently what he had said as long ago as last August that he could and was not unwilling to probe the NLF but that this must be done secretly and that he could do nothing unless and until public speculation and talk subsided. But whatever his personal view of these matters, the speech certainly reflects his reading of Vietnamese political realities. Thieu clearly does not think that he can take any other position publicly without risking loss of support from both military and civilian leaders.
- I expect that the Secretary’s very good statement of January 153 will help to reduce the fears that we are going to sell out South Viet-Nam, and in turn that should make such reactions as Thieu’s January speech less necessary. In fact, Thieu yesterday told me that the agitation and the fears which had been sweeping the country were like a wave. The crest had been reached and it was not subsiding. The problem of handling Vietnamese opinion will continue to be with us, however, all the more so if Hanoi in fact proves to have any sincere intention of seeking an acceptable solution to this conflict.
- Concentrating as they are on the possibilities of negotiations with Hanoi and the NLF, most Vietnamese leaders have had little to say about the Bowles mission to Cambodia and the resulting communiqué.4 Comment has been mildly favorable for the most part, though I think no one really expects much in the way of concrete results. In his January 15 speech, Thieu restated the government’s position on the Cambodian border question in rather harsh terms. The tone of his remarks unfortunately reflects the continuing [garble—antipathy?] which most Vietnamese leaders feel for Sihanouk personally as well as Thieu’s understandable anger over the great assistance which Cambodian policies have given to the enemies of a free South Viet-Nam. I tried to get Thieu to eliminate one paragraph referring to [Page 36] Sihanouk personally but he reacted rather strongly and said that while obviously Sihanouk did not have to talk to the Vietnamese, the least he could do was to be correct. Thieu and Ky, however, in private conversations with Phil Habib and me have agreed that the Bowles mission was a useful exercise and that Sihanouk’s intentions should now be tested more concretely.
[Omitted here are sections on Priority Programs, Other Reports on Efforts to Improve Civil Administration, and sections on Political, Pacification, Economic Issues, Chieu Hoi, and Americans and Vietnamese Killed.]
- Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Received at 8:01 a.m. and passed to the White House. This telegram is printed in full in Pike, ed., The Bunker Papers, Vol. 2, pp. 295–301.↩
- Document 11.↩
- Rusk assured the GVN that “it goes without saying that the future of South Vietnam could not be decided without full participation of the legal and constitutional government of South Vietnam.” See The New York Times, January 16, 1968.↩
- In a January 4 press conference, Rusk announced that Ambassador to India Chester Bowles would travel to Cambodia to discuss with Sihanouk measures to restrict the presence of NVA/VC forces in Cambodia. See Department of State Bulletin, January 22, 1968, pp. 116–124. In a January 12 joint communiqué resulting from Bowles’ trip, Sihanouk renewed his pledge to strengthen the ICC’s role in ensuring Cambodian territorial integrity, especially through the policing of border areas. They did not, however, reach accord on “hot pursuit” of Communist forces into Cambodian territory. See ibid., January 29, 1968, pp. 133–134. See also Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XXVII, Documents 105 ff.↩